The coach may have guided Bafana Bafana to the Afcon quarterfinals, but he’s simply not the right man to lead the team to success in the future, writes Daniel Mothowagae, who spent three weeks with them in camp in Cairo.
The outside picture portrayed Bafana Bafana in good spirits at the Afcon tournament in Egypt, but conversations with some of the players inside the camp contradict this. Some players, who chose to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals, told City Press that they would not return to the team as long as coach Stuart Baxter remained in charge.
Some insiders related an incident of a peeved Hlompho Kekana storming out of a meeting with the coach after the Mamelodi Sundowns player was summoned to explain why he was always laughing at training.
The sources also confirmed an incident during which Baxter told Thulani Serero that he did not want to play for the coach.
Too cautious and conservative
On paper, Baxter had assembled an attacking team for Afcon, but it was clear that he didn’t know how to get the best out of a squad littered with creative and attacking players.
The coach’s overreliance on Percy Tau limited the team as opponents knew before the tournament that the Belgium-based striker was Bafana’s danger man.
Lebogang Mothiba struggled as a lone striker and Lars Veldwijk offered little each time he came on.
There was clearly no back-up plan to take the burden off Tau as Baxter overlooked Thembinkosi Lorch and Serero for a while.
There was a lack of freedom for attacking players with a lot of sideways or back passes.
The introduction of Lorch later in the tournament provided the much-needed spark and this showed in Bafana’s 1-0 win over Egypt. Lorch justified his inclusion by scoring that important goal.
It was not just the result, but the good attacking brand of football that earned Bafana rave reviews from South African fans and the opposition alike.
Bafana’s three opening matches were terrible, with statistics pointing to Baxter’s cautious approach even when the opponents were there for the taking.
In the first game against the Ivory Coast, South Africa had four attempts at goal with none on target.
The Elephants took nine shots at goalkeeper Ronwen Williams, with three of those on target, including Jonathan Kodjia’s solo strike that decided the game.
Things panned out a bit better in Bafana’s second match against Namibia, but South Africa’s 17 attempts at goal yielded just one goal when Bongani Zungu headed home Tau’s corner kick late in the second half. Zungu also netted from the resultant set play in the 2-1 loss to Nigeria in the quarterfinals.
The statistics were even shocking in the final group game against Morocco, which they lost 1-0. Bafana had just three efforts at goal – not one on target. Morocco had 11.
Bafana came up against a highly organised Nigeria in the last eight and could not match them pound for pound. It showed that they just relied on video footage when Baxter appointed a scout, Mark Fish, to spy on the opposition.
The Super Eagles came into the game with changes to their left back and left wing, and these were the two players who gave them an added dimension to their already all-attacking approach. Baxter had hoped his unchanged starting line-up from the team that beat Egypt would fire on all cylinders again.
The start of the second half of this game needed the experience of a player like Kekana for stability. The Sundowns captain also offers powerful shots from range and good distribution of the ball.
But Baxter was guilty of leaving substitutions until late in the game.
Lost trust in the public
There are justified renewed calls for Baxter to vacate his seat. Hitting back at members of the public who questioned his tactics did not help his cause.
Criticism comes with the coaching job and Baxter should have handled the situation in a diplomatic way rather than making reckless statements at each taunt.
“It annoys me sometimes when we hear of the 56 million [the population of South Africa] behind us, when, in reality, there are not 56 million behind us. There are 56 million waiting to chop our heads off,” he said before the game against Namibia.
Bad public relations
Any foreign coach who accepts a job should naturally become the ambassador of their adopted country. But Baxter’s interview with the UK’s The Guardian newspaper ahead of the game against Nigeria portrayed South Africa in a bad light.
He was quoted saying: “There’s too much going wrong in the country – getting the electricity shut down every day, the water shortages, the unemployment, you name it. The country’s not hopeful and they’re in a mental stage of depression; I think that gets reflected. They cannot accept any more negativity, so one bad result is met by a tirade.”
As much as the interview exaggerated Bafana’s chaotic preparations, hinting that they were even underfunded, Baxter should have considered himself lucky that his camp was not under any potential threat of a player boycott like other nations at Afcon.